Why are teens putting off sex?

Hint: It isn't abstinence-only education.

Published July 19, 2007 12:00AM (EDT)

If you're interested in sex education, it's been a strange couple of months. In April, the results of a nine-year study commissioned by the Department of Health and Human Services on the efficacy of abstinence-only sex ed were unequivocal: Programs preaching abstinence until marriage had "no impacts on rates of sexual abstinence" and did not serve to delay the age of first sexual intercourse. Fast-forward to a piece in today's New York Times that reports, "Eleven state health departments rejected abstinence education this year, while legislatures in Colorado, Iowa and Washington passed laws that could kill, or at least wound, its presence in public schools." This would certainly seem the death knell for abstinence-only education.

But, what about the news last week that teens today are waiting longer to have sex and getting pregnant at lower rates? The figures weren't exactly mind-blowing, but the trend seems clear. In 1991, 54 percent of high school students reported having had sexual intercourse, whereas in 2005, only 46 percent reported the same. Not surprisingly, advocates of abstinence-only education seized on these findings as proof the programs are actually working.

Except, when you look a little deeper, the causation isn't so clear. First of all, according to the data, that was compiled by the National Center for Health Statistics, the drop in sexual activity happened in the 1990s, not post-2001 when funding for abstinence-only programs ballooned. In fact, the numbers of students reporting they'd had sexual intercourse between 2001 and 2005 remained virtually the same.

So what's going on? As always, there are plenty of different reasons why today's teens are holding off on vaginal sexual intercourse (the only kind of sex the reports study), but one thing that comes to mind in sorting through all this is fairly simple: moderation. Back in 2005, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, NPR and Harvard University found that the sex ed course teens wanted most was the "middle-ground solution, stressing abstinence but also discussing condoms and contraception."

Maybe the thing to take away from all this data is that teens are actually getting better at sorting through all the various, disparate messages being thrown at them and learning to create their own sense of what is right for them. Maybe in navigating through pop culture and school programs and weighing parental sermons with the advice of their peers, teens are deciding that sex requires self-knowledge, planning and the weighing of immediate desires versus longer-term goals.

The issue is anything but settled, however. Last week, according to the Washington Times, the House of Representatives voted 291-126 to extend federal funding for abstinence education programs until Sept. 30, and in the meantime will debate the issue as it hammers out the Health and Human Services budget for 2008.

By Julia Dahl

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